NASA Wants Space to Get Super Commercial

The first Space Commerce Conference and Exposition (known as Spacecom for short) kicked off on Tuesday morning with more than 1,500 people — all dressed in dark suits, because that seems to be the space industry dress code — packed into a ballroom at the George R. Brown Convention Center to talk about all the latest commercial possibilities of space. After all, what good is a final frontier if you can't use it to cultivate business interests? 

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden set the tone with his keynote address on Tuesday morning. The speech had a Pollyanna-like quality, in that Bolden managed to talk a lot about how NASA has come to rely on commercial space companies without ever acknowledging why or what that reliance has cost them or any of the other problems that the federal space agency has grappled with in recent years. And he made it clear that this trend will likely continue. NASA is all about Mars these days, and the federal space agency isn't interested in missions that might take it away from it's main goal to land on the red planet by the 2030s. 

That leaves a whole lot of space open to the commercial side of things, Bolden told the audience. As NASA forges ahead with it's big Mars plan, Bolden made it clear that the other non-Martian exploration won't be a NASA problem. "It will likely be commercial companies and interested parties will be the ones who are doing the lunar exploration and taking us back to the moon," Bolden said.

He gave a short, buoyant little speech, name-checking all of the recent NASA accomplishments — the New Horizon flyby of Pluto, the discovery of liquid water on Mars and the way solar winds have been stripping the planet, the successful Orion launch last year. As he went along, Bolden took every opportunity to underline that none of this would have happened if NASA had not started farming out some of its duties to the commercial space industry.

Meanwhile, he never mentioned the things that haven't gone quite so well. Bolden sang the praises of the commercial space industry without ever going anywhere near the Orbital rocket explosion last year and NASA's scathing report on it or the SpaceX rocket explosion during a test flight in McGregor, Texas last year.

Instead, he talked about the commercial resupply missions to the International Space Station without a hint of irony. He mentioned the upcoming Orion test launch and the Space Launch System, underlining that Orion is moving toward manned test flights and that the SLS is being built right now, with only the slightest nod to the great reality of NASA: That it only gets to keep doing these things and moving toward its big journey to Mars as long as Congress keeps funding it, and Congress has a habit of cutting NASA's budget whenever it gets half a chance. 

"This has been a great week for space," he told the crowd, explaining that the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness Act had been passed by Congress on Monday. What he didn't tell the audience is that the act extends deadlines on a ton of things, including when commercial companies will have to hit their marks on manned spaceflight safety standards. (The companies were supposed to be able to pass human spaceflight safety standards by March 2016 but they weren't anywhere near ready so now they'll have until 2023.)

He stayed locked on how NASA is plunging ahead with it's three-stage plan to get to Mars, claiming that we wouldn't be even thinking about Mars without commercial space companies to take up the slack for NASA. "Without a stable sustainable lower earth orbit infrastructure, there is no trip to Mars," he said. "As we focus on sending humans to Mars it will likely be commercial companies and international partners who will take a lead role in sending humans back to the moon, and I'm all for that."

So yeah, Bolden avoided any real talk about the problems —  commercial rocket explosions, the budget cuts, or all the time and money that still have to be invested to actually get NASA's Mars mission off the ground — but we enjoyed noticing how he stepped around these things during his brief talk (he only spoke for about 20 minutes.) And besides, he made his point.  

On Tuesday, he came to Houston to encourage the commercial space industry and to make it clear that NASA was the space leader before, but the agency will be focused on Mars from now on, leaving the rest of space to be explored by other entities.

"Keep watching the skies. Keep watching what's happening in space because it's happening and it's happening fast and our path to Mars is straight through Houston," he said, giving a nod to Houston's history with space exploration, the new spaceport license granted to Ellington Field and the general hopes that the city will continue to be tied to manned space programs in the coming years. 

He talked about how a whole generation has now grown up with astronauts constantly living on the International Space Station and said a whole bunch of other stuff about how everyone in space is in "the future business." And then he wrapped it up and took his seat in the wake of some polite applause from the crowd. 

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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray